(J Alexander Diaz/Lakers.com)
Kuzma Prepares to Grind In Rookie Season
Kyle Kuzma isn’t quite sure where his Summer League championship game MVP trophy is.
Yes, he dropped 30 points, 10 rebounds and six 3-pointers as the Lakers won the Vegas title, but the rookie forward shrugs off his dominance in the summer exhibition.
“That’s the small fry in the fish bowl,” Kuzma says.
Kuzma guesses that the trophy is at home with his mom — who is hopefully as secure with the hardware as she was with pink, yellow, green, blue and orange dollar bills back during Kyle’s childhood.
Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Kuzma loved those summer nights playing Monopoly till midnight. Mom was usually the bank teller, and these days Kuzma pays homage in ink.
On his right shoulder is her name, “Karri.” Further down his forearm appears the Monopoly man — the board-game mascot clutching a bag full of cash.
Now, Kuzma is a bit too busy to collect $200 by passing “GO.”
“I got some adult responsibilities,” he says. And the man holding him to those duties is one whom he idolized during his Michigan childhood.
While Kuzma talks, Lakers President Magic Johnson drains a series of mid-range jumpers at the other end of the gym. The 58-year-old then stops to hold court as a group of about 10 basketball operations staffers form a semicircle to hear a tale from his legendary playing career.
And Kuzma — a self-described “basketball junkie” — pauses to listen to what the Hall of Famer has to say.
“For me growing up in Michigan the first thing, if you’re a basketball fan, (that) you hear is Magic Johnson and those Michigan State teams,” Kuzma says.
“For me to be a Laker and work beside him is an unbelievable feeling and pretty surreal because he’s one of the greatest.”
Kuzma feels that way because he’s done his homework, going back and watching his fellow Michigander lead the Showtime Lakers to five championships during the 1980s.
Yet his state pride also led him to rooting for the Detroit Pistons, and he fondly recalls the 2004 team — one of the most underrated in league history, according to Kuzma — that dispatched the Lakers in the Finals.
But that’s all in the past for this basketball historian, who is embracing his first few months as a Laker.
IM A LAKER— kuz (@kylekuzma) June 23, 2017
He’s gotten tutelage from “veteran” 24-year-old Larry Nance Jr., as well as new assistant coach Miles Simon. He likes the storytelling and fashion stylings of Rob Pelinka.
“He’s a smooth guy,” Kuzma says. “You’d look at him and you wouldn’t think he’s a GM. You’d think he’s a GQ model.”
Off the floor, Lakers fans have shown him their range, as he even had some approach him out in New Jersey for the annual rookie transition camp.
And while fans have offered their praise for his summer performance, Kuzma knows that all of this will disappear if he falls short of expectations, comparing his situation to a sand castle that can be washed away by the tide at any minute.
So his longterm focus is locked on becoming a “great two-way player” over the course of his career.
That goal starts from year one, as he looks forward to the challenges of guarding the league’s best, naming the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Rookie year’s gonna be hard enough (with) playing all the games and getting used to guarding the heavy names every night,” Kuzma says. “For me it’s just defense. Offense is gonna come, because I can score the ball.”
Though defense is the primary priority, that talent for filling the bucket — as seen in Summer League when he averaged the event’s fourth-most points (21.9) — is a big reason that he already has his peers’ respect.
In the annual rookie survey, Kuzma placed in the top five for the categories of likely Rookie of the Year, best career and best shooter.
But the 27th draft pick places the grind above the hype.
He’s reminded of this while he adjusts to the onslaught of L.A. traffic.
Instead of driving the $1,500 car he scrapped for in college, the 22-year old now has his lifelong dream car: a new Porsche Panamera that he bought for his birthday.
“I always had to struggle to get here,” Kuzma says. “Struggle to grind it out, whatever. (The car) kind of tells that story of how I got here in a way.”
Kuzma has seen the rewards that come from an unwavering work ethic. He’s not interested in shortcuts.
Well, except for maybe when it comes to playing as himself in “NBA 2K18.”
“If I play a game and I’m missing shots,” he laughs, “I’ll probably quit the game and go boost my stats up so I can be nice in the game.”
But if it all comes together like Kuzma plans, those stats will rise up on their own, as the real-life grind replaces the need for in-game sliders.